Maybe I just don't buy enough stuff to appreciate the brilliant ideas of some Internet companies. Lately I've been scratching my head over the hyperbolic expectations for "mobile e-commerce" - being able to buy anything from anywhere, from any Internet-connected device.
Now, I'm as greedy and materialistic as the next citizen. I'm an impulse-buying fool when it comes to those Franklin Mint figurines. But I am pretty skeptical that mobile e-commerce will ever be anything but an interesting way to buy a few specific kinds of items.
On one hand, mobile e-commerce doesn't really sound like a feature customers have been dying for. Instead, it smacks suspiciously of being hatched by a couple of caffeinated e-commerce executives:
Exec No. 1: Any thoughts on how to sell more crap from our Web site?
Exec No. 2: How about we let people purchase products from wireless devices?
Exec No. 1: Genius! Mr. Bezos will be so pleased.
I don't mean to pick a fight with Amazon.com, but Earth's largest strip mall is an extremely good case study on this subject. Amazon.com's Anywhere program lets people access its site from Palm VIIs via the Palm.Net service as well as from Sprint PCS Wireless Web phones.
Chuck Napier, product manager for Amazon.com Anywhere, says just as people eventually got comfortable buying things online in the first place, we'll eventually get accustomed to being able to make purchases from anywhere.
"When people really understand the convenience, they can do it not only for the impromptu shopping, but also for other things," he says. "Maybe you're at your kid's soccer game, and you want to buy a gift."
Really? Forgive me, but I doubt mobile e-commerce holds much value when it comes to general merchandise. When people make spur-of-the-moment mobile purchases, they want whatever they're buying immediately. Waiting a day or two defeats the purpose.
Perhaps mobile e-commerce also rubs me the wrong way because I'm uncomfortable with our deep love of instant gratification. I mean, seriously, what e-commerce transaction is so damned important that it can't wait 15 minutes until you can get home?
Then there are truly dubious mobile e-commerce efforts. Internet start-ups BarPoint.com and IQorder.com are developing comparison shopping services that can be accessed from various devices. The idea is that people will go into a store and enter or scan a product's Universal Product Code, and the service will return that product's prices at other stores and e-commerce sites. Come on. Who would bother with such a time-wasting exercise?
On the other hand, it would be convenient to be able to purchase certain things from a wireless phone or handheld computer. Some obvious ones are sports or movie tickets. Auction fanatics would probably pay to be able to check their bid every five seconds.
I wouldn't write off mobile e-commerce completely. But I do think this is an idea that sounds better to the people shoveling tons of merchandise than to those of us expected to pay for it.